The Monstrous Baron: Hammer Films' Frankenstein
Curse of Frankenstein
The Monster gets a facelift...
a decade after Universal Studios' last Frankenstein movie and after
several years without any significant Frankenstein
films, new life was injected into Mary Shelley's
story and the Frankenstein myth was re-animated again when in 1957 British production company Hammer started their own
series of adaptations with
The Curse of Frankenstein. But this time everything was different: While the continuing element in Universal's
series was the Monster, Hammer chose the person of Victor Frankenstein as
their focal point and continuing element throughout the series.
This drastic deviation from the concept established earlier by
Universal Studios probably resulted from concerns by producers Hinds
and Carreras. Although their Frankenstein film was supposed to be
based on Shelley's novel, which in 1957 was already in the public
domain, they feared that Universal Studios might sue them for
copyright infringement, when early drafts of the screenplay by Max
Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky contained too many similarities to the
Karloff films. Consequently, they comissioned several rewrites and
finally hired Jimmy Sangster for the final draft.
Curse of Frankenstein
is set around 1880. Baron Victor Frankenstein, who is in prison
facing execution, tells his life story to a priest. The narrative then shifts
back to Frankenstein as a 15-year old boy. Victor employs his new teacher
Paul Krempe, who soon becomes his companion and friend. They begin their
experiments and their first success is the reanimation of a puppy. Years later they
steal the body of a hanged highwayman from the gallows, Victor buys eyes,
hands and several other body parts, which they stitch together. Finally,
the only thing Victor needs to complete his creation, is a brain, "the mind of a genius".
One night Victor invites his old mentor Professor Bernstein to his
house. While showing him a painting, Victor pushes Bernstein down
the stairs and manages to make his death appear like an accident. The night after the
burial Victor sneaks into the crypt and removes Bernstein's brain. But he is interrupted by Paul Krempe, who no longer wants to be part of Victor's experiments. Paul accuses
Victor of having murdered the Professor.
Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing)
Soon the Monster will be born again
(Cushing, Urquhart and Lee)
an argument and during the fight
Krempe accidentally damages the brain. Frankenstein still uses the brain
and brings his creation to life. The
Monster, a creature with extraordinarily horrifying facial features, turns out to
be a speechless,
violent brute and instantly
tries to strangle Victor. It then escapes to the woods, where it kills a blind
man. Paul and Victor then confront the Monster, and it is shot in the head by Paul
Against Paul's will
Victor reanimates his creature once again and performs some brain
surgery on it to make it behave. At the same time Victor's mistress, his
servant Justine, is trying to blackmail him into marrying her. She
threatens to tell Victor's fiancée Elizabeth, who has moved into
the Frankenstein house, that she is pregnant from him. When Justine
sneaks into the laboratory to find out what is hidden in there,
Victor locks the door and the Monster kills her.
After their wedding
Elizabeth sneaks into the laboratory where she is abducted by the
Monster. In an attempt to rescue
Elizabeth, Victor accidentally shoots her and
then burns the Monster, which falls through the roof to its death.
Now the film's narrative shifts back to the prison, where Baron Frankenstein is
visited by Paul Krempe. Frankenstein begs him to confirm his story to the
priest in order to save him, but Paul Krempe refuses. The last
thing we see is the guillotine by which Frankenstein is to be beheaded.
The Monster obviously does not know how to
say, "Thank you daddy!"
Would Professor Bernstein (Paul
Hardtmuth) still enjoy
his cigar and drink if he knew what was to
Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Terence Fisher made
radical changes to Shelley's original novel, many of them inspired by or
taken from former adaptations. Firstly, they dropped the framework of
Walton's narrative and substituted it with Frankenstein telling the whole
story while he is in prison. Most characters from the book were also
dropped or changed, e.g. Justine is now Victor's lover, and Henry Clerval is
substituted by Paul Krempe. But the most radical and important changes were
made to the characters of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster.
played by the then 40-year old Peter Cushing, is no longer a young
student, but a dandy-like aristocrat, a man who is both genuinely charming
and dangerous. He is not the naive man from the
novel, who wants to create a race of superior beings, but a cold and
villainous madman who is totally obsessed with his work and even murders
to continue his experiments. Victor kills a Professor to implant his brain into the
creature. Later, to prevent his lover Justine from telling the police about his
experiments, he even sets up her death. An utterly amoral character, Victor
is completely detached from the moral consequences of his crimes.
These crimes have no equivalent in
Shelley's novel, where Frankenstein never kills anyone. (In the novel
Justine is hanged because Victor cannot tell anyone the truth about his
monster. However, one could argue that by keeping his silence, he
indirectly contributed to her death.) In The Curse of
Frankenstein Victor is the true villain, who shows no remorse for his
horrible crimes. "We are given a Frankenstein to hate, a Frankenstein [...]
who is the real monster, a villain who ends the film facing the
guillotine", as literature critic Paul O'Flinn points out (1). In the BFI Companion to Horror
Hammer's Frankenstein is called a "ruthless, predatory creature, not
much inclined to self-justification or self-pity" (2). However, actor Peter Cushing did not deem his role to be that
negative. In an interview he stated, "I do not agree that he
(Frankenstein) is an evil man; his motives are for the eventual good of
mankind, but like many a real life genius, he is misunderstood and
mistrusted and thus forced to use unorthodox and sometimes ruthless
methods to carry on his work and research." (3). Yet it is doesn't come as a surprise that most critics do not share Cushing's point of view. It rather
seems that in the interview he referred more to Shelley's Frankenstein than to his
impersonation of the Baron.
Cushing also stated that he based his interpretation of the
character upon Dr. Robert Knox, a 19th century anatomist who used
illegally obtained bodies for anatomical studies. Cushing said, "I
have always based my playing of Frankenstein on Robert Knox, though
with variations based on the demands of the script and differing
degrees of ruthlessness because no one will ever leave him alone to
Frankenstein even destroys the women
that surround him:
Elizabeth (Hazel Court)...
...and Justine (Valerie Gaunt)
Since Cushing's Victor Frankenstein was so drastically different from
the character in Shelley's novel, where he is a romantic and guilt-ridden
student, further changes had to be made. In The Curse of
Frankenstein this role is taken over by Victor's assistant Paul, who
constantly warns him to stop his experiments. In the end he deserts Frankenstein because of his
ruthless behaviour and his inability to see the consequences of his work. The introduction of Paul's character is necessary because
otherwise the audience would have nobody to identify with, apart from the
rather inactive Elizabeth.
This also removes Hammer's films from the Universal Studios series,
where Frankenstein's assistant is usually a dumb dwarf/hunchback,
not a good-looking, intelligent young student.
The changes made to the character of the Monster are no less
drastic. From the moment the Monster awakens it is destined to be evil. It
kills a blind man
and a young girl - Justine - without any reason and attacks its
creator the first moment it sees him. Unlike in Shelley's novel it does not posses any intellectual
capabilities and is
unable to speak. Neither does it seem capable of showing emotions and
feelings. It can only obey simple orders like "sit",
"walk" or "stand up". To explain this deficit Hammer
went the same road that James Whale'
had taken more than 25 years earlier: its aggressive behavior was caused
by a damaged brain.
The only similarity to
novel is its grotesque and horrible appearance.
In Curse of Frankenstein the Monster
also has a much smaller role than the monster
in the novel or in previous films. In fact, it appears
for the first time when more than half of the film is already over. And
after that it only has a few scenes
on screen, most of them killing
innocent victims or being
hunted by Krempe
This further emphasises the shift of focus from the Monster to the
Baron in Hammer's Frankenstein films.
The appearance of the Monster, played by
Christopher Lee, bears no similarities with Boris Karloff's flathead
monster. Hammer were not allowed to use the
Karloff/Jack Pierce make-up because Universal
Films had copyrighted their design.
When they heard that another company was working on a new
Frankenstein film, Universal threatened to sue Hammer if they used
anything from their 1931 film that was not in the novel. Therefore Hammer had to make their
monster look different. It does not have any of the features of Karloff's
monster, such as
the flat head or the bolts in the neck. Hammer opted to give Lee's
Monster a face with
blisters and scars and a dead eye, making him look even more
grotesque and disgusting than Karloff's mask.
Lee as the Monster
When The Curse of
Frankenstein was released in 1957 it was an instant box office hit.
The film, which was intended as a commercial product and not a faithful
retelling of the novel, aimed particularly at a young audience. According
to O'Flinn one of the indications for that is the changing of
Frankenstein's age from a young student to a man of about forty. Hammer
Films did not want to present their audience a villain that was as old as
they were but an older man from whom the 12 to 25-year old could detach
themselves more easily. "A film pitched largely at adolescents could
evoke hostility towards the protagonist more easily by transforming him
from one of their own kind into a standard adult authority figure"
(4). O'Flinn also sees the film in the context of the time
it was made. The 50ies were an age where for the first time mankind was
threatened by total annihilation through science, in particular atom
bombs. The Curse of Frankenstein
offers a kind of Gothic escapism from this atmosphere of cultural hysteria
and public fear because it "locates the source of anxiety in a
deranged individual, focuses it down to the point where its basis is seen
as one man's psychological problem" (5). A similar
interpretation is offered in the BFI
Companion to Horror, where the Science Fiction films of the 50ies are
seen as a paranoid reaction to the cold war and Peter Cushing's
Frankenstein as a metaphor for the scientists who created the atomic bomb.
The Curse of Frankenstein
was also a film that had a strong effect on subsequent horror movies and
changed the genre forever. Not only was it the first Frankenstein film in
colour, it was also the first horror film to show all the frightening
details. Audiences could see eyeballs, brains in glass jars, the Monster's
awfully disfigured face, and Peter Cushing unwrapping a pair of
disembodied hands. Film critic Bill Warren writes that Hammer
"weren't into Gothic, Germanic horror; they were into full-blooded
Grand Guignol, in which the shock effects depend on what is shown"
(7). This was a complete contradiction to the traditional
American horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, where no horrific and gory
details were shown - undoubtedly a consequence of the rigid censorship by
the MPPDA - and the real horror always happened off-screen. Curse
of Frankenstein and its sequels "created a new sensibility for
the horror film, one far more open in dealing with sexuality and graphic
violence" (8). In regard to that
Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein can be seen as the first predecessor of a
horror film genre that became most popular in the late 70s, the
so-called splatter film.
you please give me a hand?" Frankenstein and his assistant Paul Krempe
Stylistically, The Curse of
Frankenstein is gothic horror at its finest, with gloomy castles,
eerie graveyards, and dark vaults galore. Director Terence Fisher masterfully uses costumes and
stage props that recreate the period of the second half of the 19th
century. The film is colourful and atmospheric, but never looks unreal or
fantastic. The result is a very materialistic and realistic setting.
Fisher's directing style is free of complicated camera movements, relying on precise
and balanced compositions.
After the success of The
Curse of FrankensteinPeter Cushing instantly became a star. From that
moment on in the public opinion he was Baron Frankenstein. He played this
role several times in almost all of Hammer's Frankenstein
sequels. But Christopher Lee, who had played the Monster, had to wait one
more year until stardom. Although he never again returned to the role of
Mary Shelley's monster, he became famous as another monster from
literature: Lee played Count Dracula in 1958's Horror
of Dracula (along with Cushing as Van Helsing) and in
Hammer Studios had been around since 1934, but before Curse of
Frankenstein their only entry into the horror genre had been The
Quatermass Experiment (1955) and its sequel. However, their newly
discovered formula of producing cheap horror films on their own studio
lot in England proved to be so successful, that producers Anthony Hinds
and James Carreras decided to specialise in the genre. In the 1960s
Hammer's unique style dominated the gothic horror genre and their movies
enjoyed world-wide distribution. Their titles constantly increased the
amount of sexuality and violence that could be shown on the big screen,
which alongside the lavish production design contributed largely to
Hammer's success, which lasted until the early 1970s.
Click above to watch the original trailer in full color on youtube.com
As a side effect, the unsuspected success of Hammer's first
Frankenstein movie triggered the return of the great Boris Karloff
to the Frankenstein franchise. In 1958's Frankenstein - 1970
Karloff plays Victor von Frankenstein, a descendent of the original
Frankenstein. The movie, directed by Howard Koch, is set in the
1970s and combines classic Frankenstein gothic horror with typical
1950s atomic age scares.
Disfigured and tortured during World War II by the Nazis,
Frankenstein allows a TV crew to shoot at his famed castle in order
to raise money for his experiments. He builds a creature using body
parts and his butler's brain and revives the creature using nuclear
Considered a prime example of bad 1950s low-budget movie-making,
Frankenstein - 1970 is a seriously flawed experience, that cannot
even be salvaged by the return of Karloff, who was to turn out much
better performances in the 1960s, for instance Roger Corman's loose
E.A. Poe adaptation of The Raven.
Another Frankenstein adaptation from the 1950s worth mentioning
is director Herbert Strock's low-budget I
Was A Teenage Frankenstein. Produced by
AIP in 1957 as a follow-up to I Was A Teenage Werewolf (starring
Bonanza's Michael Landon), the movie presents a descendent of Victor
Frankenstein (Whit Bissell), who continues his work in the USA. He
assembles a monster (Gary Conway) from teenage car accident victims
and has the monster kill his fiancee. Later Frankenstein sends the
horribly disfigured creature out to find a suitable new face. He
successfully transplants the face of a good-looking teenager, who
murdered by the creature, onto the monster's ugly head. In the
end the creature kills Frankenstein, who plans to dissect his
creation and ship it to Englad. When the police arrive at the
laboratory the frightened monster is killed by electricity. The
movie was moderately successful, but by today's standards it only
qualifies as a schlock cult classic, due to its low-budget,
extremely bad make-up effects, silly plot and ridiculous dialogue.
The lusty Teenage Frankenstein monster (Gary Conway)
and his first victim (Angela Blake)
1 O'Flinn, Paul, "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein". Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. Fred Botting
(London: Macmillan, 1995) 41. 2
Newman, Kim, ed. The BFI Companion to Horror (London:
British Film Institute, 1996) 146. 3
Del Vecchio, Deborah. "20 Questions: Peter Cushing".
Fangoria 100, March 1991: 13 4 O'Flinn 1995: 41 5 O'Flinn 1995: 43 6 Newman 1996: 85 7
Warren, Bill. "History of Horror: The 1950s". Fangoria 100, March 1991:
27 8 "Hammer Films", Microsoft Cinemania 96, CD-ROM, Microsoft 1995.